The people of Ireland appear set to liberalize some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws by a landslide, an exit poll showed Friday, as voters demanded change in what two decades ago was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation had backed a ballot proposal by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent. A second exit poll was due to be published by 2230 GMT (11:30 p.m. in Dublin).
Turnout could be one of the highest for a referendum, national broadcaster RTE reported, potentially topping the 61 percent who backed gay marriage by a large margin in 2015, as voters queued outside polling stations throughout the day in the blistering sunshine.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who was in favor of change and called the referendum a once-in-a-generation chance, said earlier Friday that he was "quietly confident" that the high turnout was a good sign.
Vote counting begins at 0800 GMT on Saturday (9 a.m. in Dublin), with the first indication of results expected at midmorning.
Voters were asked if they wished to scrap a 1983 amendment to the constitution that gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother's life is in danger.
Ireland legalized divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, but became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote in a 2015 referendum.
But no social issue has divided its 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.
"I think this issue is important because it's been 35 years since any person has had a choice to vote," said Sophie O'Gara, 28, who was voting "Yes" near Dublin's bustling Silicon Docks, home to some of the world's biggest technology firms.
"So many women have traveled across to England to take care of their family and health care needs, and I think it's a disgrace and it needs to change," she said, referring to women who travel to Britain for abortions.
The fiercely contested vote has divided political parties, seen the once-mighty church take a back seat, and become a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns.
Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and center and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the campaign was defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
"Yes" campaigners have argued that with over 3,000 women traveling to Britain each year for terminations — a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum — and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
Although not on the ballot paper, the "No" camp has seized on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the ballot proposal is approved, calling it a human rights issue and a step too far for most voters.
"I think it's important that we protect the unborn babies. People don't care anymore about the dignity of human life. I've a family myself and I think it's really important," said John Devlin, a marketing worker in his 50s voting "No" near Dublin's city center.
The Irish government's push to liberalize the laws is in contrast to the United States, where abortion has long been legal, but President Donald Trump backs stripping federal funding from women's health care clinics that offer abortions.
Home to vote
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad. Ireland does not allow expatriates to vote via mail or in embassies, but those away for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll.
As with the gay marriage referendum, those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the "Repeal" slogan.
"Women and girls should not be made into health care refugees when they are in a time of crisis," said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid 800 euros and traveled 20 hours to return home from Hanoi where she works as an English teacher. She called the vote a once-in-a-lifetime chance "to lift the culture of shame that surrounds this issue, so it was really important to me to be part of that."